The punk behind me was right on my ass. Adrenaline pumped through me until my magic hummed at the same vibration as the engine’s purr. Eyes locked on the pavement ahead, I pressed my foot harder on the gas and let the speed take over. Stress and worry fell away. Problems didn’t matter. For this forty seconds of asphalt, it was just me and the expert piece of machinery I now controlled.
“Eat our dust, bitchnuggets!”
Okay, me and Gran.
“Gran, you can’t call people bitchnuggets,” I said.
“Why the hell not?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because no one else’s grandma makes up weird curse words.”
“No one else’s grandma is a fucking beetle either.”
She had a point.
Last year, my grandpa Cal had passed away in his sleep. The next morning, overcome by grief, two things had happened to Gran. First, she accidentally shapeshifted into a June bug and lost the ability to shift back. And two, after realizing she was stuck in the body of an insect, she’d developed a potty mouth worse than a drunken sailor at Mardi Gras.
My mother was mortified by Gran’s new vocabulary, but I mostly just rolled with it. I’d be pissed too if I couldn’t change back to a form that included opposable thumbs. Or any creature who’s number one predator wasn’t a mole or prairie dog.
“Shitmonkeys, he’s gainin’ on ya,” Gran said.
“I see it.” My gaze slid to the rearview and then back to the road.
“Well?” Gran said. “Kick his ass already.”
“I’m working on it, Gran. Stop distracting me.”
A buzzing along my outer ear was my only answer.
“Hey, I’m trying to drive.” I swatted her away.
She huffed and landed on the dashboard again.
Just ahead, the road wound sharply left. It was a turn I’d made a thousand times without so much as a tire over the edge of the pavement. Anticipation built in my stomach, and I held my breath as I whipped the wheel around with one hand. With the other, I gripped the shifter. Tight and loose. It was the mantra Juice had taught me that I now repeated to myself over and over as the street lamps fell away, washing the view ahead in darkness.
The only light came from my headlights and that wasn’t much help at this speed.
My personal best on this stretch was 101.
The highest speed on record was 112 but that guy hadn’t made the S-turn. I wasn’t interested in beating his record if it meant hydroplaning off the edge of the bulkhead and into the river churning below.
My tires hugged the corner as I went into the first of the double turn.
“Yeehaw,” Gran called.
My vision sharpened, the headlights not quite keeping up with the front end as I whipped expertly around the switchback curve.
The cool night air seeped in around me, but my insides were hot. Intent on the speed, the precision, and the Jetta coming up on my right.
“Gem, this little pissant is makin’ a move,” Gran said in warning.
“I see it.”
Asshole thought he could take me on the inside.
I snorted, my eyes darting to the mirror that showed his front bumper inching closer.
Dumbass was still giving it gas.
He’d regret that in about eight seconds.
The second half of the switchback sent my tires screaming. I smiled to myself, knowing full well I’d just kicked up a solid cloud of smoke for my opponent. It also meant I’d need a new set of tires after tonight. Juice was going to go off, but it was worth it.
A second later, my fae hearing proved me right. The roar of the Jetta’s engine dialed back just enough to let me know he’d eased up.
“Hot damn, girl. That’s some badass driving,” Gran hooted.
My muscle-memory had me anticipating the last turn even before I saw it. A benefit of having raced this track so many times before. The Jetta behind me was new. He was holding his own a lot better than I’d expected, but it wouldn’t be enough.
I knew this course like the back of my hand.
Besides, after all the work Juice and I had done to this baby, that Jetta was no match for my Acura.
A sudden shove sent me lurching forward.
“What the—” Gran’s wings buzzed as she was flung off the dash and barely caught air before being slammed into the window.
Outside, the sound of metal crunching had my eyes narrowing. I straightened, eyes darting to the rear mirror. The Jetta had dropped back and was coming in again.
“What in tarnation was that?” Gran demanded.
None of us had the heart to tell her “tarnation” wasn’t a curse word.
“Son of a. . .” I trailed off.
The jackwad had hit me.
My car lurched again.
This time, I felt my tires drift as the impact sent me sliding toward the far edge of the pavement. Dangerously close to the drop-off along the river.
“You little prick,” I hissed.
Gran’s wings beat wildly. “Oh, that little shitbrick is going down.”
My fae senses took over, closing the gap between what a human could pull off and what my supernatural capabilities allowed. I gripped the gear shift, downshifting as I punched the gas.
My back end swung out, kicking up gravel. I fishtailed before catching traction and straightening again. Veering left, I purposely clipped the Jetta’s front end as I reclaimed my lead position.
“Watch and learn, you little shit.”
“Yeah, watch and learn,” Gran echoed. “You’re no match for my granddaughter. She’s the best in the damn state.”
In my mirror, I watched the punk in the Jetta try to keep from losing control.
Aww. He could dish it out but he couldn’t take it? I rolled my eyes. Then I slammed my foot against the gas and let my tires eat up the pavement. All that was left was a quarter mile straightaway now. I had him.
From the cupholder, my phone rang.
With one hand still on the wheel, I grabbed it and held it up.
The name Vic Hawkins flashed across the screen.
“Who is it?” Gran asked.
“Ain’t nobody got time for that,” she said. “We’ll call him back after we win. Make him buy us a victory drink.”
I decided not to point out Gran couldn’t consumer more than a raindrop of alcohol without passing out. Instead, I dropped the phone back into the cupholder and eyed the Jetta right on my tail. My breath turned shallow with the need for victory.
Just ahead, the finish line was marked on each side by traffic cones Juice had snagged from a construction site nearby. We used whatever markers we could to keep from being noticed out here.
Beyond the cones, scantily clad girls stood on a pickup bed, waving their arms at us.
The Jetta’s engine screamed in response.
In my cupholder, my phone pinged with a voicemail.
I sucked in a breath, squeezed the wheel, and forced myself not to use magic as my tires soared across the finish line.
Half a car length in front of the Jetta.
“Yeah, baby! Fuck all the haters. Suck yo’ momma’s teats.” Gran hooted and crowed our victory—not that any of the humans would pick up the sound.
Some of her insults got a little weird.
Pissed at what my opponent had tried out there, I braked hard, pulling to the left so that the front end whipped around in a tight u-turn. I slid to a stop, not even caring that I’d probably just stripped the remaining tread from my tires, and jumped out.
Gran started to follow but I moved fast, not wanting to deal with her buzzing in my ear. Or worse, buzzing in someone else’s. All it took was one well-placed hand swat and Gran was toast.
I couldn’t have that kind of guilt on my conscience.
Slamming the door behind me, I shoved past the well-wishers all hooting and cheering my victory. Several of them knew me well enough and one look at my expression had them parting for me to pass.
On the other side of the crowd, the asshat in the Jetta slowed to a stop, his darkly tinted windows would have been impossible to see through if I’d been human.
I wasn’t human. Not even close.
“Nice driving, G,” someone called.
“Future champion of Bazemore, people, let her through.”
I ignored the comments from the regulars, glaring at the Jetta as I stalked closer.
“Get out of the car,” I yelled, slamming my palm against his hood as I rounded the front end.
Several of the spectators followed, boxing me in between the Jetta and their nosy asses.
“What happened, G?” a male voice called from behind me.
Hector. Always up in people’s business.
I ignored him and marched up to the driver’s side door.
When the punk didn’t open it, I lifted the handle and yanked the door wide. It squeaked on its hinges and I had to stop myself from pulling it clean off.
“Whoa. You can’t just—”
“What the hell was that?” I demanded.
A lanky guy with bad acne unfolded himself from the front seat. He towered over me by at least a foot, his expression somewhere between shocked and pouting.
“You could have killed me,” I said. “Or yourself. Are you insane?”
He threw his hands up defensively.
“Whoa, lady. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I stepped closer, unmoved by his innocent act. Inside, my fae magic mixed with the swirl of creatures I was capable of becoming. Every one of them was pissed and straining to get out.
“Don’t play stupid with me,” I hissed. “That kind of recklessness might work at your high school drag strip, but down here, we drive clean.”
“Look, it was an accident, okay?”
“You ever touch my car again with so much as a dirty fingernail and I will rip your organs out of your asshole and—”
Juice’s voice was sharp.
I jerked toward the sound. “Give me a damn minute,” I called.
His tone was one I’d never heard before. That, more than the sniveling little schoolboy in front of me, had me stepping away.
“Get out of here,” I told him, disgusted.
“Don’t you want me to settle up with the bookie?” he asked, wide-eyed.
“I don’t want your lunch money.” I shoved past him and over to where Juice waited.
One look at his stricken expression and my stomach plummeted.
“What is it?” I asked. “Is it Z? Did he—?”
“Not Z,” he said in a strained voice. Not that I could blame him. Z was my on again, off again boyfriend. Right now, we were off again, and Juice was thrilled.
Mine had been the only race so far, which meant no one else could have been injured. Not unless I changed my mind about the punk in the Jetta.
“It’s your father.” Juice’s voice was gentle but his words were so unexpected, I felt only confusion.
“My dad?” I frowned. “He’s not even here tonight. You know he can’t come to these. A conflict of interest.”
“There was an accident, Gem.”
I blinked. Thanks to the adrenaline still pumping through me, the words were taking longer than necessary to sink in.
“What kind of accident?”
Juice’s mouth was drawn. “You should go home. Your mom is waiting for you so you can go downtown together.”
A rushing sound rose up, blotting out the revving of engines behind me as the crowd began to disperse, heading back to the starting line for the next round.
“What kind of accident?” I repeated, voice rising.
His eyes held the truth even before he managed to say the words.
“I’m so sorry. Your mom said the agency just called—”
“Juice, what happened?” I demanded.
“He’s dead, Gem.”
I didn’t wait until he was finished before sprinting back to my car.
It was a mistake.
A terrible, horrible mistake.
He’d just called me not ten minutes ago.
Juice had bad information. I’d prove it.
Gran was already ranting when I slid into the car and shut the door behind me. Ignoring her, I grabbed my phone, hand trembling.
“Gem? What is it, honey?” Gran demanded. “Who are you calling?”
I didn’t answer.
With a couple quick swipes, I dialed my father. It rang and rang before finally going to voice mail.
“You’ve reached Vic Hawkins. I’m busy. You know what to do.”
He sounded gruff, an attempt at “tough cop” that had made my mother and I tease him for days. My dad wasn’t gruff. Not on two legs anyway. His griffin side was another story, but that was a form he used for good. Everything about my dad was pure light.
My hands and feet went cold as the truth of Juice’s words finally sunk in. I hung up without leaving a message and looked down at my phone. My eyes caught on the notification I’d ignored before. I had a voice mail.
“Gem?” Gran’s tone was more urgent now. More worried.
“One second,” I whispered.
Juice walked up, his expression wary and full of empathy.
I hit the button to lower my window.
“Gem, go to your mom,” Juice said gently. “She needs you to go downtown. To identify his—”
“Don’t say it.”
Part of me still wanted to believe this was all a terrible mistake. Someone had decided to play a prank. Or maybe he’d just been injured. But deep in my gut, I couldn’t shake the throbbing pain that grew steadily bigger as it wiped out the doubt.
Juice didn’t try to stop me as I started the engine and threw the car into reverse. Squealing tires, I backed up and then slammed it into first, peeling out as I headed for the main road.
“Dammit, Gemma-girl, tell me what’s happening right now,” Gran demanded.
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. If losing Grandpa Cal had forced Gran into this form, what would losing her son do?
In my rearview, Juice watched me go, sad and solitary in the darkness.
Refusing to let my emotions take me over, I kept my eyes on the road as steadily as if this were another race. At the finish line, my parents would be waiting, my father’s happy smile the prize.
He had to be okay.
He had to be alive.
I didn’t want to imagine what I’d do if he was gone.
© 2019 Heather Hildenbrand